By Megan Mitchell YourHub Reporter
AURORA — The Colorado premiere of a one-man show honoring the life and activism of Paul Robeson brings together the work of two local theater producers and an accomplished baritone singer for a unique multimedia performance.
“I never learned about Paul Robeson in school, but my family happened to have some of his recordings,” said Anthony Brown, an activist and singer from New Mexico. “They always spoke of him with utmost respect, so I learned to revere him from people who revered him.”
Robeson was an internationally acclaimed actor, singer and lawyer from New Jersey who spoke and sang fearlessly to end segregation. He died in 1976 after 77 years of activism.
Brown learned in his 30s that he and Robeson had interesting parallels in their life’s work — both men have traveled the world to sing about peace and encourage change in conflicted social systems.
“I actually discovered in the ’90s that I had some of the same passions as Robeson,” Brown said. “For years I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to do a tribute of him?'”
Brown teamed up with Andrew Flack, a playwright from Centennial, and donnie l. betts, a producer, performer and director from Aurora.
With their passion and guidance, the show evolved into an autobiographical, spoken word and concert hybrid called “I Go On Singing — Paul Robeson’s Life in His Words & Songs.”
As he stood on the darkened stage at the Aurora Fox Arts Center on Feb. 26, Brown belted out Robeson’s famous rendition of “Old Man River,” with images of Robeson projected on a massive screen behind him.
Brown’s dream to create a tribute show for Robeson became a reality in 2010 when Flack got involved. Brown told Flack about his longing to honor Robeson with a concert of his life’s work, and Flack agreed to write a script and produce it.
For about eight months, the two pored over Robeson’s 1958 autobiography, “Here I Stand,” and pulled information to craft a full show that went much deeper than a simple concert, to include narration and video clips with people like folk singer and activist Pete Seeger.
Seeger discusses a performance he did with Robeson in New York in 1949 that is now called the Peekskill Riots after a mob attacked concert-goers and a cross was set ablaze on a nearby hillside.
“We really looked for stories about Robeson that would reveal the inner man,” Flack said. “We wanted to capture the emotional makeup and extreme depth of this incredible person.”
The show debuted in 2012 at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts in Princeton, N.J. Since then, Brown has performed the show at college campuses in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Virginia, Kansas and Maine, Flack said.
“Being at the Fox Theater is really bringing this home for us in a lot of ways,” Flack said. “The piece evolves with every show, and now we have a real opportunity to grow it in a formal theater space.”
The duo said they would never have made it to the Fox without betts, who has directed shows at The Fox like “The Color Purple” and “Hattie.”
“As a director, donnie has worked very closely with Tony (Brown) to find Robeson’s inner character,” Flack said. “Tony has been transformed from primarily a singer to an actor deeply inhabiting the part.”
Betts was no stranger to Robeson’s story. In fact, he had wanted to produce his own show in honor of Robeson for years. It seemed like he was destined to meet Flack and Brown.
“It’s one of those incredible spirits of peace, love and the rights of human beings,” betts said. “Robeson stood for all those things until the end of his life.”